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Alonso's final report card

The reverberations from the departure of Baltimore schools CEO Andrés Alonso will be felt nationally as well as locally. Six years ago, I was a member of the Baltimore school board that hired him. Our risky vision was to try to recruit a game-changer whose achievements would surpass those of the heralded superintendents in New York (Joel Klein, whom Mr. Alonso served as a deputy), Chicago (Arne Duncan) and D.C. (Michelle Rhee).

What we sought was what we got, and then some. Mr. Alonso initiated wave after wave of reforms: higher test scores, higher graduation rate, extensive school choice, a nationally groundbreaking transformation of expectations for students with disabilities, a progressive teacher contract, a steep drop in expulsions and suspensions, a remarkable 10-year plan for school facilities, and more. He defused a testing scandal by instituting the nation's most stringent safeguards against cheating.

Not all was right or rosy. Fiscal mismanagement cropped up in spots, and there are deeper concerns about classroom instruction (more on that later). But overall during his tenure, as my own research and writing on national school reform shows, no school system in the country has gotten better results or laid such a solid foundation for future progress.

Moreover, as important as what he has done is how he has done it. For one thing, he changed the system's culture to put kids first and to accept no excuses. That might seem unexceptional, but the education establishment nationally resists reforms that raise expectations and enforce accountability.

For another, his tenure has been extraordinarily free of conflict. He has skillfully earned and maintained the trust of the school board, parents, advocacy groups, political officials and even the teachers union. Compare Ms. Rhee's warfare with the D.C. teachers union that undercut her reforms and hastened her departure. Mr. Alonso's main pocket of resistance has been the association that represents principals and supervisors, but that was predictable given his uprooting of long-entrenched wielders of power.

At the same time, he fulfilled his nonbinding commitment to stay at least five years, despite persistent rumors of high-profile opportunities elsewhere. His tenure of six years is double the average for urban superintendents. Still, a fair question is whether he has stayed long enough to assure what he calls "sustainability" of his leadership.

The answer depends on a number of things:

•Will the school board continue to support a bold leader and agenda? And will the mayor resist the temptation to try to micromanage the board and CEO? The board's appointment of Mr. Alonso's chief of staff, Tisha Edwards, as interim CEO is a positive step in the direction of continuity.

•For all the superior marks he has earned, Mr. Alonso gets a lesser grade — an incomplete — for his leadership on classroom instruction. He has over-relied on decentralization and school autonomy. Principals should have maximum authority to hire and fire teachers. But they need more technical assistance and should be required to select instructional programs, especially in reading, that are most research-based. The central Office of Teaching and Learning needs to get larger, not leaner, if it is to provide the necessary instructional leadership.

Even here, the system lately has made notable strides under the able chief academic officer, Sonja Brookins Santelises. Still, the system's support of an instructional infrastructure — curriculum development, teacher support in the classroom, supervision and monitoring — falls far short of the need in comparison to the facilities infrastructure.

•Last, but hardly least, the chances for success of schoolchildren in Baltimore and nationwide depend on whether we the people of the United States address persistent, growing poverty. Schools can do better than they do. But widening disparities in family income are causing widening disparities between high- and lower-income students in academic performance.

As Mr. Alonso exits (joining ex-superintendents Klein, Duncan and Rhee), urban school reform is entering a new and precarious era. While family income inequality is rising, so are academic standards. The so-called Common Core standards — adopted in Maryland and the great majority of states and in effect next school year — will raise the bar for student proficiency and teacher accountability. And test scores will almost surely drop in the short term. That is a recipe for the kind of disruptive conflict that followed the passage of the No Child Left Behind Act in 2001.

So Mr. Alonso will be an even tougher act to follow than may be apparent. Sustainability is essential. So are further waves that rock the schoolhouse-boat if Baltimore schoolchildren are to continue to make progress, and our city is to continue to be a national model for urban school reform.

Kalman R. Hettleman is a former member of the Baltimore school board and former state human resources secretary. His email is khettleman@gmail.com.

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